A court decision on April 22, 2012, cancelling a ministerial order barring women from entry-level jobs at the Justice Ministry is an important victory against legally-sanctioned discrimination in Kuwait, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged the Kuwaiti government to act on the decision, to guarantee women equal access to all public jobs, and to amend or repeal gender-based discriminatory provisions from all its legislation.
In July 2011, the Justice Ministry announced in local newspapers that it would accept applicants for “entry level legal researcher” – a first step to becoming a prosecutor. The advertisement specified that the positions were only open to male candidates, without providing any rationale for the restriction.
“This important ruling reaffirms the principles of equality between men and women that are guaranteed in Kuwait’s constitution and international laws,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The court ruling shows the important role that Kuwaiti courts can play in protecting equality in the face of efforts to restrict it.”
At least six recent female graduates of law schools had applied for the Justice Ministry jobs following the July 2011 advertisement, but ministry officials refused to accept their applications, Marwa al-Seirafi, one of the applicants, told Human Rights Watch.
In August, al-Seirafiand at least five other female applicants separately filed lawsuits at the Administrative Court, contending that the ministry’s decision to consider only male applicants was unconstitutional.
The court, in ruling for the plaintiffs, ordered the ministry to cancel its requirement that candidates be male. The court said that the decision violated the Kuwaiti constitution and international treaties that Kuwait has ratified. The ministry has a month to appeal.
Candidates accepted by the ministry for the positions take a nine-month training course at Kuwait Institution for Legal Studies. If they successfully complete the course, they become prosecutors.
“The issue is not whether I’m accepted or not,” Dhuha al-Azmi, another female applicant, told Human Rights Watch. “What is important is I have a chance to compete with the other applicants for the positions.”
In a similar case in April 2010, an administrative court rejected a lawsuit by a female Kuwaiti law graduate who contended that her application to work for the public prosecution unit was unconstitutionally rejected because of her gender. The judge found that article 2 of Kuwait’s constitution, which cites Islam as the state religion and Islamic Sharia as “a main source of legislation,” prevented women from holding prosecutorial positions.
Article 29 of the Kuwait Constitution says: “All people are equal in human dignity and in public rights and duties before the law, without distinction to race, origin, language, or religion.” The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which Kuwait ratified in 1994, calls for taking measures to “eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment.”
“This is a great historic achievement for all women in Kuwait,” al-Seirafitold Human Rights Watch following the decision. “We are fighting for the rights of women in this country and if the ministry appeals the ruling we will keep challenging them.”
Women’s rights in Kuwait took a step forward in 2005, when Kuwaiti women won the right to vote and to become candidates for election, paving the way for the election of four women to parliament in May 2009. However Kuwaiti women continue to face discrimination on many legal levels. Kuwait’s nationality law denies Kuwaiti women married to non-Kuwaiti men the right to pass their nationality on to their children and spouses, a right held by Kuwaiti men married to foreign spouses.
In cases of alleged domestic violence or marital rape, under Kuwaiti regulations, courts provide lawyers to the accused but not to the victims. Furthermore, Kuwait’s laws do not specifically prohibit domestic violence or marital rape, and there are no government-run or funded shelters or hotlines specifically for survivors of domestic violence.
In its concluding observation in October 2011 the CEDAW committee expressed concerns about many discriminatory provisions of Kuwait laws and called on Kuwait to “systematically review its laws and regulations … in order to amend or repeal sex- and gender-based discriminatory provisions of its legislation with the aim of ensuring full compliance with the provisions of the Convention.”